Sunday, February 22, 2009

Scalpel, Please

This is from today's Hindustan Times.

CUTTING FOR STONE Abraham Verghese

Abraham Verghese is, of course, known for the sensitive, restrained My Own Country, about his experiences as a doctor fighting AIDS in the American south during the Eighties, as well as The Tennis Partner, a moving memoir of a close, complex friendship. His first novel, Cutting for Stone, is, however, sprawling, messy and a bit of a “loose baggy monster” as Henry James would have it. (People who like this sort of thing will call it “epic in scope”.)

This is the story of twins Marion and Shiva, conjoined at the head at the time of birth in an Addis Ababa hospital in 1954 to Sister Mary Joseph Praise, from south India, and Thomas Stone, a British doctor. Circumstances lead to the twins being brought up by two other medical practitioners, Hema and Abhi Ghosh, themselves immigrants from Chennai. The tale is narrated by Marion, now that he is “forty six and four” years old: “I am forced to render some order to the events of my life, to say it began here, and then because of this, that happened, and this is how the end connects to the beginning, and so here I am”. His immediate urge, though, is to heal the wound between himself and his twin brother.

The bulk of the book is a love letter to an Ethiopian upbringing. There’s a torrent of information almost from the start, minutiae of everyday life as experienced by Marion and his circle. The density of detail overwhelms, and sometimes descends into list-making. An Arab souk, for example, contains “matchboxes, bottled sodas, Bic pens, pencil sharpeners, Vick’s, Nivea Crème, notebooks, erasers, ink, candles, batteries, Coca Cola, Fanta, Pepsi, sugar, tea, rice, bread, cooking oil and much more”.

Some heartbreaks and misunderstandings later, Marion flees to the United States to avoid being picked up as an Eritrean sympathiser, becoming a surgical intern at a Bronx hospital and rising through the ranks. This section is in a different key, often reading as a series of notes between surgeons swapping tales. Marion’s past catches up with him and he again encounters the central figures in his life, leading to a long drawn-out denouement during which affairs of the heart are finally resolved.

From these pages, you’d know that the author is immersed in medicine, even if you were unaware of his day job. Surgical procedures and medical conditions are lingered on, sometimes discomfortingly so, with sentences such as: “…the cabalistic harmony of heart peeking out behind lung, of liver and spleen consulting each other under the dome of the diaphragm”. You may exhale now.

There are inexplicable touches of magic realism – Marion can recall being joined to Shiva in the womb, and both later develop extraordinary olfactory powers – but these are tentative, not organically connected to the narrative. (Perhaps it’s just a Rushdie hangover, as is the naming of one of the twins “Shiva”.)

Some scenes have a vivid immediacy, such as Marion’s childhood game of blind man’s buff with Genet, daughter of a domestic help who will later play a tragic role in his life; or Hema finding herself on a plane about to go down. In addition, the character of Dr Ghosh is engaging and well-etched. Overall, though, the novel is crammed full of people, back-stories, explanations, historical tidbits, details and incidents, creating a centrifugal force that characters struggle to get away from.

Early on in Cutting for Stone – the title is taken from a declaration in the Hippocratic Oath – there’s a scene of Dr Thomas Stone amputating his infected finger; after this, his hand becomes even more adroit during surgery. With more cuts, the novel would have been more adept, too.


sabupaul said...

Why is the headline different of the review in Hindustan Times?

Unknown said...

No reason, really, apart from the fact that I like to write my own headlines.